Holiness: a journey of love


We wondered about holiness this past week. Perhaps wondering is all we can hope to do — recognise the questions it raises rather than pronounce on definitive answers. I offered the following prayer/meditation as part of the process.

Holy God,
Holy God,
Holy God!
How can we begin to understand your holiness?
How can you in your holiness even think about us;
Let alone meet with us,
Or welcome us in our rags?

Is it because your holiness is not defined by right and wrong,
But by love?
Is it because love is what holiness is about?

For the religious teachers, holiness was defined
by laws kept and laws broken. We, too,
condemn those who break laws we like to keep.

But your holiness is steeped in love;
An outrageous, extravagant love.
The prodigal son is loved, welcomed, clothed and fed.
Will his life be transformed?
Will he become holy?
You don’t wait for the answers.
You simply pour out your love,
And invite us to journey with you.

We don’t know how holiness is displayed in heaven
But here, your holiness
Builds bridges and reaches across chasms.
Lepers, outcasts, the blind, the lame, the foolish,
Servants and masters, rich and poor,
Young and old; lost in a broken world.
None beyond your reach; no one turned away.

The adulterer, the self-righteous, the timid, the proud;
The scandalous prodigal and the self-righteous brother,
All loved with a passion, wept over, and embraced.
So, is holiness a journey of love rather than a destination?
A growing relationship rather than a set of rules?

To become holy as you are holy.
Does that mean we become holy as we offer
Your gift of love to a broken world?
As we reach out a hand to the lost,
Offer an embrace to the unlovely
A helping hand to the foolish?

Lord teach us to love as we have been loved;
Lead us on a journey into holiness.

For your love’s sake,
Amen

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Receiving the Kingdom: a prayer


Lord our God,
We cannot begin to understand your love.
You invite us into your kingdom,
You invite us into your home,
Not as servants, or even as guests,
But as children of the King.

As a loving parent
You welcome us with joy and delight,
Celebrating our return
As if we were the most precious jewel in your collection.

Is that the secret? Is that how your love works?
You treat us as a precious pearl
Because that’s how you see us;
That’s how you have made us?
You treat us as your children,
Because that’s how you love us
And why you made us?

Oh wonder of wonders!
That’s why we don’t understand.
You don’t celebrate perfection
As we have taught ourselves to do.
You don’t just celebrate endings, you celebrate beginnings;
You celebrate our smallest victories,
Each little Easter,
Each decision to repent and to believe,
Each step along the way.

Thank you.
Thank you for new beginnings;
Thank you for planting your kingdom in our lives;
For nurturing it in the darkness of our sin and suffering;
For giving us a new way to understand our world,
A new way to relate to ourselves and to our neighbours.

Grow your kingdom in us;
Grow our faith and our understanding;
Grow our love and our caring;
That we might, more and more, reflect the glory of the King.

In the name of Jesus,
Our Lord and Saviour and Friend.
Amen

Used with ‘Receiving the kingdom: a sermon

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Receiving the kingdom: a sermon


Wooden crossAt Prestbury Methodist Church, we are following Trevor Hudson’s book Signposts to Spirituality, in our preaching. What follows is based on chapter three, ‘Receiving the kingdom’, which I was privileged lead last week.

SCRIPTURE:    Psalm 19; Mark 1:14-22

Let’s remind ourselves what is meant by spirituality, because a host of what might loosely be termed new-age writing tends to give spirituality a bad reputation, especially for your standard off-the-shelf Methodist.

What it’s not
The spirituality that Trevor speaks about is not an other-worldly experience. It is not an escape from the realities of washing dishes, getting kids to school, writing exams or struggling through another work week. It is not an escape from the wounds of suffering and oppression. New Testament spirituality is a deliberate process of shaping what we believe and think and do so that our everyday lives, the very routines and painful experiences we face, begin to reflect more and more clearly the person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, spirituality is simply growing as a Christian — becoming more like Jesus in everything we do, even our thoughts and our attitudes.

Chapter one
Trevor starts in chapter one with ‘Drawing a picture of God’. Because how we understand God, our picture of God, shapes the way we live our lives.

Chapter two
And in chapter two we learned about ‘Developing a Christian memory’. We were encouraged to recognise and remember God’s interaction with his creation, his interventions in our lives and, most especially, his intervention in the life, death and resurrection of  Jesus.

Third signpost
The third signpost for us  is ‘Receiving the kingdom’.

The proclamation of Jesus, the focus of his ministry, was as we read in Mark 1:14,  ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ The kingdom of God is available; the kingdom of God is here.

Activity
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have a choice (and the budget) to live anywhere in the world. Where would you go? Where would you definitely not go? (We had a discussion in the pews and a chance to feed back.)

Our choice of where to go and where not to go is based on our understanding of a particular country — its way of life, its people and perhaps its educational, health and legal systems. Of course we may be wrong. We might choose or reject a country on the basis of a biased view of that country.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD
In the same way, our understanding of God’s kingdom is going to be shaped by our understanding of God, our picture of God. That’s why it is so important (as Trevor keeps reminding us) to spend time with the Jesus of the gospels, because Jesus didn’t simply describe the kingdom, he lived it out and he demonstrated God’s kingdom at work.

And (as Trevor says) Jesus describes God ‘as an infinitely caring father who runs down the road to welcome home a wayward child with a hug. Then he showers on the boy some significant gifts, plans a welcome-home party and accepts him back into the family home. This is the nature of the King to whom this kingdom belongs.’ It’s a picture we need to take very seriously.

Not far away
But the kingdom of God isn’t a far-away place — some Care Bear land of rainbows and butterflies. Jesus didn’t leave the kingdom of God in order to come down to earth. He lived constantly in the kingdom of God; he brought the kingdom of God into every situation he encountered.

When Jesus healed the sick, there was the kingdom of God. When he ate with sinners and outcasts, when he wept at the tomb of Lazarus, when he forgave a sinner or touched a leper, there was the kingdom of God. When he faced his fears in the garden of Gethsemane, and as he hung on the cross to die, there was the kingdom of God; even there, the loving will of the Father reigned.

Anywhere but here?
Sometimes in our anguish, our struggles and our desperate situations, we dream of the kingdom of God as ‘anywhere but here’. God is going to come and rescue us from our hell on earth and transport us into his kingdom of peace and quiet, of goodness and gentleness, of freedom and joy.

But that’s not the kingdom of God that Jesus lives out in the gospels. There we find Jesus sending those he heals back into their communities. And he says to the forgiven, go and sin no more — go and live your new life, your kingdom life, in your own community, within your family.

The kingdom life is not an escape; it’s the discovery of a new way to live our lives. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to demonstrate.

THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS HERE
And Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand; it’s available, it’s here; it’s for you and for me to enjoy, to live and to offer to others. How do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?

Outward situation & history
Well, we don’t start the kingdom life because our outward situation has changed. We don’t win the lotto or win a makeover. We don’t even get to wipe the slate clean and start again as if none of the bad stuff had ever happened. Even our history remains in place. We are who we have become. The bad things and the good that have shaped our lives are still there. They never go away.

I wake up every day and I remember how far away my children and grandchildren are. And whenever I think of them, countless times a day, I think of my failures that led to them being so far away. Those failures and my memory of them will never disappear. They are part of who I am, who I have become, and how I live my life. And those failures remain part of their lives, too, whatever they make of them. They don’t go away.

But by God’s grace they become part of kingdom architecture — or, to use another metaphor, compost in which healing and growth takes place.

So, if the scenery doesn’t change, if our history doesn’t change, if we are still stuck in our difficult (and for some, desperate) situations, how do we receive the kingdom of God? How do we start living kingdom lives?

Jesus said, simply, ‘Repent and believe the good news.’

REPENT
To repent is literally to turn around. For the prodigal son, it meant turning away from the life he had chosen and physically returning to the home he had left. But for Zacchaeus it meant simply putting himself in a place where he could be found (in his case, up a sycamore tree). For the alcoholic it is a recognition that I cannot do it on my own.

Just the beginning
We live in a messed up world full of pain and suffering, of hurt and grief, of hatefulness, greed and destruction. Repentance accepts that that is not going to change suddenly, but that what can change is how we live in the world; how we respond to its challenges; the choices we make before we speak or act. Repentance is a choice. We choose to be different. Repentance is the first step, the choice to allow God in. Repentance says, ‘That’s the journey I want to be on.’

Repentance is not the end of the journey, just the beginning. None of us is here because we have perfected the art of sinlessness or achieved perfect peace. We are, all of us, still on the journey, however long we have been Christ followers.

And it’s not a once-off thing. Repentance is something we do whenever we discover within us a destructive, hurtful way of life; something we are clinging to that keeps us from living fully in the Kingdom; responses that hurt others and rob them of peace.

AND BELIEVE
‘Repent,’ Jesus says. ‘Repent and believe the good news.’

To believe is not some vague new-age proclamation that one reads on posters and Facebook pages: ‘Just believe and all will be well.’ What you are supposed to believe is never explained. Just believe.

Something particular about Jesus
No! For this spiritual journey, to believe means to believe something particular about Jesus. It means that we believe what the disciples came to believe and what they tell us in the gospels about Jesus. We believe that Jesus died for us and that he rose again. We believe that he is Saviour, Lord, God with us; that he is the way, the truth and the life.

Letting go
To believe also means, as Trevor puts it, ‘to trust oneself to the crucified and risen Christ.’ It means letting go; daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live.

That might sound pretty scary if you’ve never done it before. It is very difficult to let go, to hand your life over to an ‘unknown God’, to a Jesus you have only just met. But it is equally difficult for those of us who have known Jesus, and have been on this journey, for a long time.

A comfortable relationship with our Jesus
We have settled in to a comfortable relationship with our Jesus over many years. Perhaps he isn’t quite the Jesus of the gospels. Perhaps our Jesus isn’t quite so clear about right and wrong; perhaps our Jesus is okay with just looking after parts of our lives. And he doesn’t interfere with those things we would rather not talk about; things we cling on to, or things we are so ashamed of we simply cannot face them and dare not bring them into the open.

No, daring to let Jesus take control and teach us how to live is not easy for any of us. But let me say again our repentance and belief, our turning around and our commitment to the Jesus of the gospels, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey with Jesus as he helps us face the darkness of the world and the darkness within us — the demons we have allowed to control us. For some it will be a painful struggle to disentangle and transfer our allegiance fully to Jesus. But it is a journey towards the light, and a journey alongside One who loves us more than life itself.

The first step is to repent and to believe: to make that decision to turn away and to begin the journey with Jesus.

EXERCISE
I want to invite you to share in an exercise Trevor Hudson describes. He speaks about our closed fists representing our holding on to our lives and our lifestyles; our unwillingness to let go of sin and let go of control. And he invites us to open our hands in repentance and belief.

So I invite you, if you would like to do so to clench your fists, and become aware of those areas or aspects of your life, those relationships or actions or beliefs, you have been holding onto, unwilling or unable to relinquish control; unwilling or unable to let God in.

Opening
As you become aware, so open one hand in repentance, a conscious decision to turn away from those things, to surrender them to God’s control and plans.

Then open the other hand in an expression of belief. It may be a confident and bold belief; it may be a hesitant, uncertain belief. But it is belief in the risen Christ who died for these very things, to bring freedom and peace and the power to begin a new life.

Silence
By these simple actions, we begin a new journey. For some, it’s the first step into the kingdom of God; but for many we have opened an area of our lives to the kingdom that has been closed for too long.

But remember, my friends, it’s only the beginning; it is an appeal to the Father who has been waiting, longing for us. He has been ready and waiting with the fatted calf and the party clothes. And he says to you and to me tonight, ‘Welcome home!’

Followed by a prayer: Receiving the kingdom: a prayer

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Salt and light: a prayer


A prayer used in conjunction with the sermon Salt and Light: what makes worship taste good? (5th Sunday after Epiphany, 9 February 2014)

Lord, we love the light.
We surround ourselves with bright and shiny things.
We mix with cheerful and happy people.
We keep our lamps lit, our fires burning and our salt at the ready.

But, Lord, we know that there are dark and unsavoury places inside us:
Places we have not allowed your light to shine;
Activities we have not allowed your salt to flavour;
Dark and unsavoury attitudes that affect the lives of those closest to us;
Dark and unsavoury actions and words that hurt and leave scars we cannot heal.

Forgive us, Lord.
Bring your light and healing touch to every part of our lives:
every relationship, every activity, every word.

And as we begin to experience your forgiveness and healing,
help us to move out into the dark and unsavoury places around us.
Help us to bring your light and hope, your joy and peace to those who need it most.

We pray for those for whom grief and loneliness are constant companions:
for those who have lost loved ones,
for those who have lost their jobs or whose livelihood is threatened,
for those who have lost their way and have lost hope.

We pray for children growing up in a technological world,
for whom technology has become a substitute for love and affection.

We pray for alcoholics and other addicts,
who cannot be helped unless they want it,
but for whom even asking for help is beyond their own ability.

We pray for South Africa as we move towards elections.
Help us to resist the temptation to wallow in negativity,
and help us to bring light and hope to our conversations and discussions.

Thank you for those who resist oppression and greed,
and who suffer as a consequence.
Help us find ways of joining them rather than simply cheering from the sidelines.

Keep us alert this coming week;
help us discover your light shining in unexpected places.
Help us find ways to share the flavours of your love with a hungry world.

In Jesus name,
Amen

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Salt and light: what makes worship taste good?


A sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 9 February 2014
Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 58:1–12; 1 Corinthians 2:1–12; Matthew 5:13–20

Salt and light
Jesus said ‘You are like salt for the whole human race…. You are like light for the whole world.’

Light!
I like the idea of being a light; you get put in some important place like a hilltop or on a lamp stand, and your light shines for all the world to see (or at least the neighbourhood or the family). You play a useful role; everyone looks up to you; they need you; they respect you. They might be looking at the path, but the light shines the way. Light is important. Light is noticed.

Salt?
But salt? I’m not so sure. You see, light remains aloof, it retains its identity, but salt gets more intimately involved with people; it loses itself for the people it serves; salt is consumed. Light gets put on a pedestal, but salt, used properly, isn’t even noticed. It’s brings out the flavour of everything else, and you say, ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of beef,’ or, ‘That’s a fantastic soup.’ And the salt goes, ‘Hey! It’s me! You should try this stuff without me.’ But no one hears, and no one notices, and down it goes.

Salt and light
I’d rather be light than salt. But Jesus says we are both. We aren’t given a choice. There will be times when we will be called on to be a light and at other times, salt. Some of us will be more salt than light or more light than salt. We are not called to choose or to debate, but to be faithful; to be reliable; to be available for whatever role we are given.

Covenant Prayer
Remember the words of the Covenant prayer we prayed last week:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you….

Jesus said salt that has lost its flavour is of no use at all. He also said, in effect, ‘A light that’s in the wrong place is equally useless.’

I’m sure you know the story of the man searching in the street for a gold coin he had lost.
A stranger comes up and asks, ‘Where did you lose it? Were you here?’
‘No,’ the man says. ‘I was down there, around the corner.’
‘Well, why are you looking here?’
‘Cos this is where the light is. It was pitch black down there — couldn’t see a thing.’

We expect to be noticed
Isaiah writes to a people who seem to have made up their own minds about service and who decided they wanted to be light not salt:

‘We’ll do it this way, thank you. We’ll fast and pray, we’ll even use sackcloth and ashes; we’ll compete with each other in bowing down low — but we do expect to be noticed. I mean, why should we fast if the Lord never notices us…if he doesn’t pay attention?’ (Isaiah 58:5 & 3)

Had Jesus been speaking to this group about salt and light, they would have said, ‘Yes, Lord, of course we’ll be a light for you. Bring the pedestal. We’re ready to be noticed!’

But what if God says, ‘I don’t need light; it’s daytime. I need salt.’

When our worship loses its flavour
Roland McGregor, an American United Methodist Minister, comments on this Isaiah passage and the ‘salt and light’ reading in Matthew: ‘Isaiah shares a message about God’s taste buds: when our worship loses its flavor and what restores its taste’ (See McGregorPage for Epiphany 5.)

What makes worship taste good? God told the people of Israel through Isaiah:

‘The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.’

Micah
Today’s reading is, of course, Isaiah’s version of the Micah 6 passage:

And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.Micah 6:8

For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters.

I don’t want salt with my apple. And keep your salt well away from my chocolate. But give me a bowl of oats without salt in it? No! And biltong without salt will make you very sick.

We don’t need a light in the middle of the day. But in the dark? When we are lost? When we need it to find a lost coin, or a lost child? Where is the light then?

It’s in the church
‘Oh, no! It’s locked up in the church. That’s where we use it. It’s very beautiful there. We can’t bring it out here and run the risk of it breaking. No; please come on Sunday, 9 a.m., and you can enjoy it as much as we do.’

‘And you want our salt? For soup? For the soup kitchen? No, sorry. You don’t understand. Our salt is very special. It has a unique saltiness to it and a mix of minerals and herbs. It’s far too special to put on food (and certainly not soup for the soup kitchen). We keep it in a special saltcellar, and we bring it out on Sundays and put it on display during our worship.

‘It’s very important, you see. Jesus told us to be salt and light, so we have this beautiful lamp and this wonderful salt as part of our worship.’

Passing the peace out there
For worship to be full of flavour it has to affect people’s lives where it matters. For example, we pass the peace among ourselves, and there are many times we need to be reminded of that peace. But there is a world of turmoil out there and people who have never known peace. Dare we take the peace we have received and share it out there?

To be salt and light means going to the dark and unsavoury places where people live and work and struggle and weep.

Put an end to oppression
After telling the Israelites to ‘remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice,’ Isaiah said,

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon.  (Isaiah 58:9-10)

Your worship will bring flavour and light to the world if you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.

‘Biting barbed words’
Do we oppress people? Well probably not in chains in our garden sheds. And probably not on the scale that was experienced under apartheid. But a friend of mine published a poem the other day. It ponders on a lifetime of pain and anguish — a soul’s agony. Reflecting on the source of the pain, she wrote:

Maybe, it’s secrets
Done to her—or kept from her.
Maybe the silence,
Or yelling—biting barbed words
That shred a small child’s insides.
(Mirada Mudo, ‘Caught in the Un-Wished Well)

‘… biting barbed words that shred a small child’s insides.’
‘… put an end to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word.’

Sarcasm and criticism
How often do we default to sarcasm? How often do we become overly critical of our children or our spouse? Have you listened to yourself recently? I know how easy it is to default to sarcasm and criticism. On a bad day I’ll get into critical mode, and everything my wife does needs to be criticised. The only way to break the habit is to declare a no-criticism day. I know there is grave danger that the sky might fall in if you don’t criticise and correct — especially the important stuff, like how to squeeze the toothpaste tube and hang up the washing — but it’s worth the risk. If you can just hold off until tomorrow you’ll find, as I do, that the mood has changed, the need has gone, and peace has a chance.

I wonder, also, how our Christian way of speaking might oppress people around us, especially fellow Christians. For example, I passed a motivational message board the other day. The message read:

‘Worry ends where faith begins’

Now if you are not a chronic worrier, you will drive past that sign and say to yourself, ‘Amen to that!’ And you won’t understand what I am about to say.

But if you are a chronic worrier, that sort of sign just adds to your worries. You say to yourself, ‘But I do have faith; I just can’t stop worrying. So, obviously, my faith isn’t any good. I must be a lousy Christian … or perhaps not a Christian at all.’

All you need is faith
And much of what we say in church, or at least much of what people hear us say, confirms that understanding. We say:

‘All you need is faith.’
‘Just pray your worries away.’
‘If you just have faith God will heal you.’
‘If you just have faith God will protect you.’
‘If you just have faith God will change everything.’

Of course, all of that’s true. But the way we say it, or the way it is heard, people are left thinking that if my healing, protection, transformation doesn’t happen the same way as yours, or quickly enough, it must mean my faith is less than yours, my faith is not good enough.

We are not all the same
But God’s healing, protection, transformation touches different people in different ways and at different times. We have to understand that; we have to remember that when we share our faith and our good news. We are not all the same, and God doesn’t treat us all the same.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning
The sign we spoke about, ‘Worry ends where faith begins’, is a lie. The beginning of faith is not the end of worry. It might be the beginning of the end of worry; it might be the beginning of learning to live with worry and of learning to deal with worry. But the beginning of faith is not the end of worry.

I may as well say, ‘the beginning of faith is the end of alcoholism.’
Most alcoholics would know I’m talking nonsense; they know that the beginning of faith is just the beginning of a journey towards managing their alcoholism.

The beginning of faith is only the beginning of a journey where faith will grow and affect different parts of our lives at different speeds. It’s the beginning of a journey that will be different for each of us, but a journey towards joy and love and delight, of salty flavour and light in dark places.

Faith is a relationship
Faith is a relationship with God. And like any relationship it is something we grow into. We get to know, we learn to trust. We struggle a bit and the relationship suffers; we discover a bit more about the other and we grow closer.

Being salt and light, putting an end to oppression, means we allow others the same space we need. So the challenge for us this week is to find ways that we can give people around us the gift of light and salt that is making a difference in our lives; look for ways that we can share the grace that God gives us in abundance.

‘… put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word…, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon…. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.’

What do you think make worship taste good? Add your comments below.
And be sure to come back tomorrow for the prayer that followed the sermon.

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What are you looking for?


A challenge from the readings for next Sunday’s sermon (second Sunday after Epiphany): Jesus asked Andrew and the other disciple of John who followed him, ‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38)

What a question. What am I looking for?

What am I looking for today? What do I want out of this day as I share it with my wife? What am I willing to contribute to make this a special day for others? What do I want to make of this day?

What am I looking for this year? What does the new year bring in the way of challenges, hopes, dreams, expectations? When, at Christmas time again, I look back on the year God has gifted to me, what do I want God to say about my stewardship? What do I want to say about the year? What do I want my wife to say as she looks back on our journey together?

What am I looking for in life? Wealth, fame, and  happiness? A word from the Father: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’?

Perhaps the disciple’s odd reply contains the secret?

‘Where are you staying?’

In other words,

‘We don’t really want anything. We just want to know where you are staying. Where can we find you? Where will you be when we need you?’

And Jesus said, ‘Come and see.’

Oh, what welcoming words. ‘Come and see. It’s no big deal. I’m here for you. I’m available.’

Later Thomas would ask a similar question:

‘Lord, we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?’ (John 14:5)

And Jesus said:

‘I will come … and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am …. I am the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:3,6).

Is that the key to this day this year, this life?

‘Stay close. Look for me in the present. I will never be far away. Learn to follow me in the daylight, and the darkness will be less of a challenge. Wherever you are, in light or in darkness, in pain or in peace, I am the way to the Father.’

I must learn to ask the disciples’ question: ‘Where are you staying? Where are you, Lord? How do I know you better and recognise you more readily and follow you more willingly, this day, this year, this life?’

What is your question for the year ahead?

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